Text: Brenna Buckwald // Photography: Courtesy of Gun Lake Casino
After experiencing the buzz and bright lights of gaming at Gun Lake Casino in Wayland, Michigan, guests looking to relax in warm ambiance and enjoy a flame-grilled meal, artisan cocktails, and a sweet dessert can look no further than the casino’s own Shkodé Chophouse. Named after the Pottawatomi word meaning fire, Shkodé first opened in September of 2021. Since then, it has taken a masterful team behind the scenes to bring guests a culinary experience rooted in locally sourced and freshly harvested ingredients.
Josef Huber, executive chef at Gun Lake Casino, noted that when he first took on the role in April of 2021, he was given somewhat of a blank canvas when building the menu.
“The dining experience is an out-of-this-world experience,” Huber said. “The beautiful thing with a casino is that we can really play around with some of those more expensive foods, without really needing to come down to the nitty-gritty of how much money we are going to make from it. It is a beautiful thing.”
Though given open direction for the food selection at Shkodé, Huber aligned the menu with an overall vision for the restaurant becoming a fine dining chophouse destination, complete with a culinary curation highlighted by steaks, inquisitive dishes, and modernized flavors.
Informed by a 40-year-long career in the culinary arts, Huber brought a flavor influence to Shkodé that can be traced back to a beginning in his homeland of Austria as well as his work at dining establishments around the country and across international borders. At 16-years-old, Huber was first introduced to the culinary world and European cuisine as an apprentice at Elisabeth Park, a Five-Star, Five Diamond Resort in Salzburg, Austria.
From there, he ventured out on a bit of a world tour, working at The Imperial and Bristol Hotel in Vienna, Wild Coast Sun Hotel and Casino in South Africa, and The Regency in Bangkok, to name a few. In 1989, Huber traveled to the United States for the first time in a student exchange program before returning to Europe to finish a master’s degree in Culinary Arts. Since then, Huber not only worked as Executive Sous Chef at The Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach, Florida, but also worked in major markets across the U.S., such as Los Angeles, Orlando, Columbus, New York, and Chicago. Huber also spent nearly 14 years working in Grand Rapids, Michigan for the Amway Hotel Corporation where he managed the culinary affairs of 14 Amway-owned restaurants until 2020.
His vast experience came in handy when creating the menu at Shkodé, Huber noted. Currently, some of the more popular items at Shkodé are the crab cakes, steak options, the Chilean sea bass, and the fire-roasted seafood platter, which offers an assortment of lobster tails, jumbo scallops, shrimp, clams, oysters, potato puree, and seasonal vegetables. Huber also noted his team was somewhat surprised to find that guests of the restaurant also gravitated toward the lamb skewers on the menu.
“It then comes to presentation and execution of the dish,” Huber said. “It may read ordinary, but then you get it, and it is like, ‘wow, I wasn’t expecting that.’ Then you eat it, and it is like, ‘wow, this is even better than it looks.’”
The culinary team at Shkodé comprises many specialists, including a mixologist and a pastry chef. Huber indicated that Zac Williams, the mixologist at Shkodé, makes his own syrups, bitters, and oils for the cocktails he crafts—even utilizing the oil from beef fat in an Old Fashioned, as well as using a bubble machine to create texture on the glass of some of the cocktails.
“He is a true mixologist. The things I do with food, he does with drinks,” Huber said. “It is unreal what he puts together.”
Albert Cruz, a dedicated pastry chef on the team at Shkodé, brings a thoughtful selection of sweets to the table at the restaurant as well. Currently, desserts comprise a crème brûlée trio, multiple cheesecake flavors, and a seven-layer chocolate cake.
“To have somebody really dedicated to do nothing else but the sweets, he made such an impact,” Huber said. “We couldn’t have done it without him. It is a very specialized art of the kitchen, and to have him on board is great.”
Huber noted some of the other key players at Shkodé include Michael Morgan, the sous chef; Jes Breu, the assistant manager; Burdette Pombier, Shkodé supervisor, and Balal Darwich, the Chef de Cuisine, as well as the hourly team members who keep the restaurant running smoothly.
“[Darwich] really pushes the envelope of what he wants to do. He is trying to push this whole farm-to-table idea, which really brings to life the flavor profiles he creates between the traditional flavors and modern flavors and some of his Asian-influenced flavors. He is pushing us and is a leader as a chef, but he is also pushing me and my boss to try different avenues of how to do things,” Huber said.
Having spent the better part of two decades in the Grand Rapids area, Huber developed relationships with a number of local farmers from the region and puts much of his trust into their work. The local businesses that Shkodé purchases their produce, meat, and other locally sourced ingredients from are recognized on the menu at Shkodé, as it takes a community of people who put their heart and soul into their products to bring a final dish to the customer, according to Huber.
“We have a few ideas floating around for the near future. We would like to start our own chef garden here, just producing some of our own product on-property. One of the chefs, he is actually a master gardener, so we’re playing around with the idea of maybe building a greenhouse,” Huber said.
“For us, really what we want to push is to become a dining destination, not just for the people who want to come to the casino and gamble, but also for people who want to come here to eat. The idea of it is that our food is really the driving factor,” Huber added.
First published in The Golf Explorer: Michigan’s Journal to Incredible Golf, 2022